The student income contribution isn’t a lot of money. If you deduct “estimated personal expenses” from your financial aid award letter, the number will come out to $630 for first years and students with no expected parental contribution, who are usually the focus of discourse. Campus minimum wage is $12.75 and it isn’t particularly hard to find a job that pays more. Even at the lowest wage, it comes out to about 50 hours a year, or less than an hour a week. The rest of one’s hours of employment can go to personal expenses, not greedy daddy Yale.
I am a low income student, a First-Year Scholars at Yale alumnus, with a blue-collar father, a huge scholarship and an underperforming high school. I am also a busy student. This semester, I am taking five reading-heavy seminars. All take attendance and expect plenty of participation, so I can’t feasibly skip or arrive unprepared. When I’m not in class, I have a leadership role with the Yale Debate Association and go to tournaments. I’m also a varsity athlete.
And I have a campus job. Actually, I have two. I usually work between seven and ten hours a week at the Yale College Dean’s Office or as a sports reporter. I make good money, and only a small portion of it goes to Yale.
What might surprise some readers is that I do not feel oppressed or pressured by this situation. While everyone struggles with procrastination, and I am no exception, I have never felt that I could not get my work done.
I recognize that this sounds like I am bragging. I am not. I have had struggles too, and they are more demoralizing than working a campus job. I was not prepared for Yale. For me, it was a tremendous struggle overcoming my background. In my first year on campus, my roommate called me ignorant for saying “taller than me” instead of “taller than I.” In my math class, I sat silently and then wrangled the problem sets on my own because I didn’t know that it was all right to see the peer tutor. In high school, I was the peer tutor. I had no idea what I was supposed to do for the summer, so I ended up hanging posters and distributing keys. If I had come from another family, perhaps my experience would have been different. If I had had a mentor to guide me, perhaps I would have done better.
Cash wouldn’t have helped me. I bought my textbooks for nearly nothing on the “Free and For Sale” Facebook group and from the YHHAP Book Sale. I worked a little to pay for my expenses and that small sum Yale expected. I’m moving off campus next year, which should save me a significant amount of money.
Yale has numerous centers for marginalized groups on campus: La Casa Cultural, the Women’s Center and the LGBTQ Co-op, to name a few. There is no center for low-income or first generation students, and I think that is really a shame. The Dean’s Office has recently launched a program called the First Generation and Low Income Ambassadors. I am one of them. We direct students to services such as the winter clothing fund and produce a newsletter for students who share our backgrounds. While this is a step forward, we have no physical location, no peer liasons and limited funding.
Eliminating the student income contribution would cost a massive amount of money. While a few hundred dollars go directly to Yale, another $3,000 or so is estimated for personal expenses and travel, which is, at least in my case, a massive overestimation. Those who oppose the contribution usually want both eliminated. Given that approximately half of undergrads are on financial aid, that comes out to millions of dollars a year. For me, I would rather have a center created to advocate for our needs and provide targeted services to students of my background. With more money, I might buy my textbooks new instead of used and potentially go out to dinner. My life wouldn’t change that much. A center could help students from my background navigate Yale and form a more coherent community in order to ultimately achieve more success.
While the student income contribution is a focus of campus discourse, I believe that the money required to eliminate it could be better spent establishing such a center. The number of hours we are expected to work are absurdly low for the amount of controversy, and a center would better serve the needs of students like me.
Sam Wood is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Contact her at email@example.com.